Monthly Archives: February 2014

Matthew 6:24-34 – Don’t Worry

Matt. 6:24-34: 23rd February 2014

If you were to find a group of friends all of whom have jobs, places to live, and a family car and you were to read today’s gospel to them, how might they respond? What would be their concerns? How might they hear the message – don’t worry about what you will eat or drink or wear, because God will take care of you?

Perhaps they’re struggling to pay the mortgage, perhaps there’s some uncertainty about their employment, perhaps a child is having trouble at school. These are all important things, and they need to hear Jesus= words. They can trust God to be there for them. And perhaps they will hear the Gospel as an encouragement to focus on the things that really matter, rather than just material wants. … Strive first for God’s kingdom and all these things will be added to you as well!

Now try (at least in your imagination) to read this gospel to the millions of people who have fled Syria, or who have been displaced from their homes in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. People who’ve been living in refugee camps, some for considerably more than a year. Or try, to read this gospel, as one of those in our own community who have been sanctioned under the new benefit rules, and who have lost all of their housing benefit at a stroke.

What might be heard by the well-off audience as an admonishment to focus on the things that matter, rather than material wants, is not an option for these people.

If you’ve spent the last year or more worrying every minute about feeding your children, giving them shelter at night, and perhaps someday being able to get them some shoes, Jesus’ message cannot be easy to hear. What does he mean, don’t worry? Life is nothing but worry.

Now we know that Jesus is not saying that the basic necessities of human life don’t matter. We know that he is not saying that these necessities will magically appear if we believe in him in the right way. So perhaps, he=s talking to people who actually have enough to live on. If not, doesn’t his encouragement not to worry seem rather cruel?

But what about those who truly don’t have enough? Where is the good news for them in today’s gospel?

Jesus says: Don’t spend your time and energy fretting about all this stuff. If you have enough, be thankful. And beware of making an idol of having what you want, rather than merely what you need. If you don’t have enough, it’s not because God doesn’t love you.

There is no simple equation to apply. You cannot say: those who please God have plenty; those who have displeased God will suffer.

If only it were that easy! It would simplify matters greatly, to be able to draw a straight line between a list of dos and don’ts and the corresponding benefits or punishments. We would know where we stood! For example, if you steal, the crack in your lounge wall will get longer; how much longer will depend on the value of what was stolen. Or if you cheat on your taxes, wham, you’ll be hit by a bus.

It just is not like that! We cannot justifiably say that those trapped in camps in Lebanon or Northern Uganda deserve their misfortune. We cannot, without gross generalisation,  say that those sanctioned under the new benefit rules, all deserve to have no rent money, and thus no food or fuel. Jesus is encouraging his followers to look beyond the kind of inflexible thinking that attaches virtue to success and vice to failure.

God’s desire for us is that we all have enough; rather than we use some complex method to determine precisely how blessed or cursed we will be. “No one can serve two masters,” he says. We’ve got to decide what our priorities and values are, and if we’re going to follow Jesus, then those priorities and values will not be focussed on ourselves but on the needs of others.

The situation in Syria, the Sudan, the Central African Republic, of the Gaza strip will not magically get better. Many of the deserving poor in our own country will continue to be badly treated. The person in desperate circumstances will not necessarily see Jesus words as Good News. The effects of an earthquake in Pakistan, or floods in the UK cannot conveniently be sidestepped by those who are Christians. … While we have ample evidence that God doesn’t prevent disaster or save good Christians from it, Jesus assures us that God will not leave us alone, no matter how bad things seem. God’s love is there for all of us.

The Sermon on the Mount, of which today’s gospel is a part, is subversive. It’s values are not the values of the world. Things were just as bad in Jesus= day as they are today. And Jesus’ teaching in the face of all that is wrong with the world is consistent: have faith, and do something about the bad things by doing all the good you can.

Today’s gospel is part of a larger message, part of Jesus’ challenge to to us: Life in the kingdom of God has different values from the world. Life in the kingdom of God includes the poor, the merciful, those who mourn. Life in the kingdom of God is about bearing light to the darkest parts of the world, it is about salting the world with mercy and justice. Today’s gospel, taken outside this context, sounds unrealistic to someone who is suffering. In the larger context of Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reminding us of God’s profound love for everything and everyone God has created. And encouraging us to focus on the kingdom of God.

For all human beings it is very easy to worry about the basics, about how we’ll pay the electric bill or what we are going to do about the heating system. Being good stewards of what we’re given is important. But there is at least one other thing of equal, if not greater, priority. We must ask: “How are we serving the kingdom of God? What are we doing that meets the needs of others? How are we being Good News to the poor?”

What Jesus proclaims, to refugees around the world, to the poor in the UK, and to comfortable British citizens alike, is that the kingdom of God is at hand. Grace and mercy are available to all. …And, for those us who already have much, which is the majority of us; perhaps we are meant to be the instruments of God=s grace and mercy. Perhaps it is through us that God intends to reach out to those in the deepest need. Perhaps God’s kingdom will only be real in Syria, the Gaza strip, in the Sudan of the Central African Republic, to those in need in our own community, if it comes to them through us. As we seek the kingdom of God, perhaps we will be God’s answer to the painful worries of others.

We have the responsibility, and at times the joy, of being the conduit through which the love of God reaches out into God’s world. “And,” says Jesus, “Even Solomon in all his glory didn’t shine as brightly as those who share and give and work for the kingdom of God.”

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Candlemas – 2nd February – Turning Towards the Cross

Luke 2:22-40

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

This is one of the lasting legacies of the story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitis. Countless Christians over the centuries have felt a great deal of comfort when the Nunc Dimitis has been said or sung. It forms the central canticle of Vespers or Compline and is an integral part of Evensong.

The ‘Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple’, or ‘Candlemas’, falls on 2 February, at the very beginning of this month. It celebrates a very early time in the life of Jesus – when his parents brought him to the temple in line with their customs to present Jesus to God as their first born.

John Pridmore, who used to write regularly for the Church Times suggested in an article some years ago that the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitis, is almost the equivalent of a mug of Ovaltine. A nightcap guaranteeing a good night’s sleep. So he said, “When it is sung at Evensong or said at Compline – its familiar cadences are like gentle lullabies, easing us into dreamless slumber!”

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” Simeon is satisfied that all he has longed for is fulfilled in the child that he takes into his arms. And the Nunc Dimitis over the centuries has signalled the end of the day, the fulfilment of our activity; the time for rest and sleep.

As wonderful as this is, we miss something absolutely crucial, if this story only provides us with the equivalent of a beautiful lullaby.

For Simeon, this is a time of change, everything he longs for is being fulfilled. Something new is happening. Simeon no longer needs to look back at God’s promises, for the Messiah is now in his arms. The future begins at this point and Simeon looks forward, perhaps to his imminent death, but crucially to the fulfilment of God’s promises.

Candlemas is a time of change for us too. Up to now, as we have been reading from the Gospels each week we have been looking back towards Christmas. Epiphany is the time in which we hold onto the story of Chris’s birth, savour the truth of it, grasp once again that this is the Messiah not just for the Jews but for the whole of creation. Candlemas is the moment when we turn our gaze away from Christ’s birth and begin to contemplate what is ahead. The fulfilment of all that Christ’s birth means, happens in the coming weeks of our Christian year.

At Candlemas, we are at a turning point. Christ’s ultimate destiny intrudes now on our celebration of Christmas and Epiphany and we are called to turn our backs on Christ’s birth and begin the long journey to the cross.

How does Mary feel hearing the words of Simeon that follow the Nunc Dimitis spoken directly to her: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce you own soul too.”

What does it feel like for Mary to hear her Son’s death sentence? How hard is it to live with that knowledge for 30 years or more? How much harder is it to stand watching as it is carried out? How did she feel? Was her faith sorely tested? How did she cope? At times, we face pain that is beyond consolation. Nothing can deaden the overwhelming pain. C.S. Lewis is his book ‘A Grief Observed’. Tries to convey his own grief at the death of his wife and in the midst of his grief he writes:

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

The pain of the Cross for Mary could well be like this. Pain and grief can overwhelm everything – and pain and grief do overwhelm us.

Candlemas, calls us to turn our eyes away from Christ’s birth and to begin a long walk towards the Cross. In the next few weeks we will begin to prepare for Lent. The story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple reminds us of the pain of the cross and asks us take the first steps down a road that leads through Lent to Holy Week and Easter.

I guess that the Nunc Dimitis in its context in Luke’s Gospel is a lot more than a gentle night time canticle, for it hides within it the truth of the Cross, the place of our salvation. It calls on us to prepare for the coming of Easter.